Dear Nonprofiteer, I’ve got a treasure-house of knowledge and no one appreciates it

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I was just reelected as Treasurer of our social-service nonprofit.  You’d think this would make for smooth sailing at Board meetings, but instead everything’s been really bumpy.  We have a new Secretary, who doesn’t seem to understand anything I say so her summary of my financial reports is always wrong, and a new President.

Our previous Board President trusted me completely, and I’d make a report and recommendation and he’d immediately move to have it approved.  This new guy is always saying, “Well . . .” and “I don’t know . . .” and “Let me see . . .” and so we go from one meeting to the next without deciding whether to pull the plug on losing programs or increase the size of our reserve.

There’s not much point in having an experienced Treasurer if they’ve stopped being willing to benefit from my experience!  How can we get back to where we were?

Signed, Eager to Get Something Done Again

Dear Eager:

Not to get all Zen about it, but you CAN’T get back to where you were–you can only go forward.  And if you want to get something done in a democracy–and remember, nonprofit Boards are democracies–you have to persuade people it’s worth doing.

Under the old regime (it sounds like), they were persuaded because the Board president was persuaded, and conversely right now they’re not so sure because the Board president isn’t so sure.  So the first thing to do is figure out what’s most urgent of the things you want to accomplish (pulling the plug on a program?  increasing the size of the reserve? something else you didn’t mention?), and the second is to talk to the Board president before you go to the meeting and explain exactly how you think the numbers back up your position.

If the president’s been saying, “Well, I don’t know . . .” that’s probably because he doesn’t know, and rather than find your expertise reassuring he just finds it intimidating.  So boil your position down to words of one syllable.  Don’t be condescending, but don’t be technical, either.  Say, “Look, here are the costs of this program.  And here are our revenues.  It’s clearly a loser, and remember we started it three years ago because we thought it was going to make us money.  If it were central to the mission that would be one thing, but it’s actually kind of beside the point; so I don’t think we ought to drain the Treasury for it.  What do you think?”

And then listen to what he says, and answer his objections, so you guys walk in the room a united front.  Or, if you don’t, make sure he understands that you intend to recommend this and ask how he’d like to handle it: refer it to a committee including you?  Discuss and resolve it on the spot?  Agree to decide at the following meeting?

In other words, your task is to give the Board president all the information he needs to make, or recommend, or at least defer to, the decision you think is best.  I’d say your task was to “build trust,” but that sounds a little Zen, too.

As for the Secretary: if you want her to write down three specific key items in your report, then confine your oral report to those three items: “We have only 4 months’ worth of operating expenses in reserve when most experts recommend 6 months’ worth.  Our bank balance is $2162.  I analyzed the midnight volleyball program and it’s losing $300 every month, so it will drain us dry in 7 months.”

And if you need to correct her account of your previous report, try to do it in private: if you get the minutes before the meeting, call or e-mail the Secretary and say, “I must not have been clear last time: I meant to say that our reserve was too small, not our bank balance.  How do you want to handle this? Should we correct it in advance, or do you want me to clarify it when we review minutes at the meeting?”  She’ll pay more attention to what you say in meetings if she’s not worried the whole time that you’re going to yell at her if she gets it wrong.

Sure, there are lots of other things you could say about every and any financial report.  But your job as Treasurer is not only to understand the books but to translate them into small chunks of decision-making information.   The good news is, because you’re organizing the information, you can present it in such a way that it seems indisputable that things ought to be done your way.

In other words: you have just as much power and influence as you did under the old President and Secretary; you just need to wield it with a bit more subtlety until everyone gets comfortable once again with making decisions on your say-so.  Remember: when in doubt, people will default to NOT making a decision; they figure (falsely) that they can’t get in trouble if they do nothing.  If decisions are important to you, you have to figure out how to make them palatable to decisionmakers.  If getting something done matters, concentrate on reassuring your fellow and sister Board members that doing something is safe–and that doing nothing would be worse.

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3 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, I’ve got a treasure-house of knowledge and no one appreciates it”

  1. Yana Davis Says:

    Let me share my experience here. At well past 50, I found myself unemployed last year. Am still technically unemployed, but have found contract work here and there using my fundraising experience. That was generated by bombarding, gently, my colleagues and other likely suspects who might need my skills on a freelance basis.

    And, am about to enter talks with a local nonprofit serving seniors, of whom I am one now, to set up a kind of “tribune” office. I will help solve personal problems for seniors, running interference for them with bureaucrats, nameless ultility officials, healthcare providers, etc. The key to the local nonprofit considering this was my offer to find my own funding – like many nonprofits their budget is stretched very thin right now.

    Bottom line is innovate, be creative, be inventive. If you can’t find a job, invent one. If you want a different challenge or more satisfying job, invent one.

    Essentially that’s what I’m doing.

  2. Peter Howitze Says:

    I would like to comment you for your good work on this entry. I hope you continue coming up with useful posts like this one. We are also working on our blog and I have already bookmarked some of your posts. Best wishes. Peter

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